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VZCZCXR054 1 1 
DE  RUEHMIL  #0021/01  0480715 
P 170715Z  FEB  10 



E.O.  12958:  DECL : 02/15/2020 


Classified  By:  Consul  General  Carol  Z.  Perez  for  reasons  1.4(b 

I. 1 . SUMMARY:  (SBU)  Heading  into  the  March  2 8-2  9 regional 
elections,  the  political  landscape  in  the  Veneto,  one  of 
Italy's  most  politically  and  economically  important  regions, 
displays  a dominant  center-right  coalition  headed  by  a 
Northern  League  (LN)  candidate  and  a weak  and  disorganized 
center-left  opposition.  The  Northern  League  party  is  strong 
and  growing  stronger  both  in  relation  to  the  opposition  and 
within  its  center-right  coalition,  due  to  increasing  popular 
support  for  hard-line  positions  on  security  and  immigration; 
the  election  of  LN  Agricultural  Minister  Luca  Zaia  as  the 
region's  next  president  is  a foregone  conclusion.  The 
outcome  of  the  regional  election  in  the  Veneto  and  elsewhere 
could  change  the  balance  of  power  between  the  LN  and  Popolo 
della  Libert  (Pdl),  Prime  Minister  Berlusconi's  ruling 
party.  In  contrast  to  the  center-right's  strong  and  unified 
front,  the  center-left  opposition  is  in  disarray.  In 
addition  to  its  almost  certain  loss  in  the  upcoming  regional 
contest,  the  center-left  Democratic  Party  (PD)  faces  the 
potential  loss  of  the  mayorship  of  Venice,  a position  that  it 
has  held  for  over  twenty  years. 

Northern  League:  Strong  Venetian  Roots,  and  Growing  Stronger 

J. 2 . (SBU)  With  gubernatorial  elections  coming  up  on  March 
28-29,  the  Northern  League  (LN)  party  is  in  an  extremely 
strong  position  in  the  economically  and  politically  important 
Veneto  region,  both  within  its  center-right  coalition  and 
vis — vis  the  center-left  opposition.  The  center-right 
coalition  has  chosen  an  LN  candidate,  current  Agriculture 
Minister  Luca  Zaia,  to  stand  for  election  next  month  and 
officials  from  both  the  center-right  and  from  the 
center-left,  composed  primarily  of  the  Democratic  Party  (PD), 
agree  that  the  LN  has  outmaneuvered  its  opponents  in  the 
region,  reading  the  popular  mood  and  appealing  to  an 
ever-broadening  segment  of  the  electorate. 

13.  (SBU)  Crucial  to  the  LN ' s regional  appeal  is  its 
connection  to  the  territory  and  its  use  of  a unique, 
sometimes  crude  political  rhetoric  that  appeals  to  Veneto 
voters.  Home  to  the  historically  powerful  and  independent 
city-state  of  Venice,  the  Veneto  maintains  an  identity  that 
is  proud  of  its  achievements,  especially  in  the  economic 
realm,  and  is  wary  of  outside  interference.  Northern  League 
founder  and  leader  Umberto  Bossi  has  successfully  parlayed 
the  LN ' s flagship  issue,  fiscal  federalism,  into  a broader 
platform  of  security  and  protection  from  outside  threats, 
linking  the  rise  in  immigration  with  crime,  unemployment,  and 
a general  degradation  of  Italian  cultural  identity.  This 
political  formula  holds  continued  appeal  for  the  LN ' s 
traditional  electoral  base,  the  small-  and  medium-sized 
business  owners  who  make  up  the  economic  fabric  of  the 
Veneto,  but  this  savvy  platform  fusing  fiscal  federalism  and 
immigration  has  also  had  growing  resonance  with  workers,  a 
traditionally  leftist  bloc,  whom  LN  leaders  assert  no  longer 

and  (d) 

feel  ""protected""  by  the  PD  and  other  parties.  The  LN  has 
made  an  increasingly  convincing  argument  that  unfairly  high 
taxes  imposed  by  Rome  put  people  out  of  business  and  that 
immigrant  workers  take  Italian  jobs.  Recently  this  second 
claim  has  been  especially  compelling,  given  the  ever  higher 
number  of  immigrants  arriving  in  the  Veneto  and  the  global 
economic  crisis,  which  has  led  to  many  job  losses  in  the 
Veneto . 

T_4 . (SBU)  LN  rhetoric  about  immigration  ranges  from  slightly 
protectionist  to  overtly  xenophobic,  and  the  LN  has 
successfully  linked  immigrants  to  crime  in  the  minds  of  an 
increasingly  large  swath  of  voters.  LN  policies  at  the  local 
levels  often  focus  on  expelling  illegal  immigrants  and 
""cleaning  up""  the  often  run-down  neighborhoods  in  which  they 
live  - measures  that  citizens  often  perceive,  in  practical 
terms,  as  cleaning  up  the  streets,  reducing  crime,  and 
generally  improving  the  quality  of  life.  The  opposition 
refutes  the  logic  behind  these  measures  as  well  as  claims 
about  their  effectiveness,  but  even  they  admit  that  on  the 
issue  of  security,  the  Northern  League  is  king.  A PD 
official  from  the  city  of  Treviso  noted  that  economic 
insecurity  in  Italy  is  the  more  salient  issue,  especially  in 
the  recent  downturn,  but  that  the  LN  has  seized  on  physical 
security  as  its  issue,  which  is  easier  to  explain  to  voters, 
and  has  translated  it  into  political  gain. 

Party  of  the  People  - and  the  Young 

15.  (SBU)  Although  many  LN  leaders  would  be  reluctant  to  admit 
it,  the  Northern  League  in  the  Veneto  draws  heavily  from 
Italy, s former  communist  tradition  and  has  retained  that 
close,  grass-roots  connection  to  the  electorate;  supporters 
across  the  region  refer  glowingly  to  the  LN  as  the  only 

MILAN  00000021  002  OF  003 

""party  of  the  masses""  and  ""party  of  the  people""  currently 
the  country.  The  LN  has  continued  to  expand  its  physical 
presence  with  numerous,  accessible  party  offices  and  outposts 
that  also  double  as  community  centers.  LN  leaders  and  voters 
alike  boast  that  their  mayors  and  councilmen  are  always  out 
and  about,  talking  to  people  and  maintaining  a personal 
relationship  with  their  constituents  - practicing  what  hugely 
popular  Verona  mayor  Flavio  Tosi  has  termed  ""supermarket 
politics.""  The  LN,s  pervasive  reputation  for  good  public 
administration  seems  to  stem  directly  from  this 
responsiveness,  accessibility,  and  visibility.  Furthermore  - 
largely  due  to  its  strong  physical  presence  and  proactive 
outreach  in  the  region  - the  Northern  League  has  successfully 
courted  the  youth  vote  and  seems  to  be  making  great  progress 
in  cultivating  the  next  generation  of  LN  voters.  A Treviso 
Pd  official  said  that  in  2009  he  organized  a visit  to 
Strasbourg  for  area  teens  to  learn  more  about  the  EU 
Parliament,  the  first  arranged  by  the  region, s Democratic 
Party  in  15  years;  over  the  same  period,  however,  the 
Northern  League  has  organized  multiple  similar  trips  per 
year . 

Democratic  Party  Struggling  for  Coherence,  Votes,  and  Venice 

11.6 . (SBU)  In  contrast  to  the  Northern  League,  s rise,  the 
center-left  in  Veneto  is  struggling  to  put  forward  a cohesive 
platform  and  communicate  a strong  party  identity  to  the 
electorate.  The  party  is  suffering  from  a declining  share  of 
the  vote,  and  its  loss  in  March, s race  for  the  regional 
presidency  is  virtually  assured.  The  Pd,s  choice  for 
gubernatorial  candidate  displays  the  party, s internal 
weakness  and  identity  crisis;  Venice  city  councilman  Giuseppe 
Bortolussi  is  far  from  a typical  Democrat,  with  an 
ideologically  independent  bent  and  a conservative, 
pro-business  stance.  Bortolussi  - who,  well  before  the 
announcement  of  his  candidacy,  told  us  that  he  did  not  want 
to  run,  but  would  ""obey""  if  his  party, s leadership  asked  him 
to  - has  for  over  thirty  years  served  as  the  director  of  the 
region, s largest  union  of  small-  and  medium-size  business 
owners.  In  this  capacity  he  has  often  led  the  charge  against 

higher  taxes  and  central  government  interference,  the  LN,s 
traditional  political  territory,  and  has  clashed  openly  with 
center-left  governments  headed  by  Pd  Prime  Ministers  Prodi 
and  D,Alema.  The  PD,s  obvious  attempt  to  challenge  the 
center-right  on  its  own  terrain  and  appeal  to  the  largest 
possible  electorate  is  not  likely  to  succeed. 

VI.  (SBU)  Another  potential  blow  to  the  center-left  would  be 
the  loss  of  the  mayorship  of  Venice  (which  also  holds 
elections  in  late  March).  While  not  particularly  important 
politically,  the  city  of  Venice  still  has  enormous  cultural 
and  social  significance,  and  it  has  for  over  twenty  years 
been  a center-left  stronghold.  Outgoing  PD  mayor  Massimo 
Cacciari  has  already  served  three  terms  in  total,  and  the 
center-left  candidate,  elderly  lawyer  and  former  city 
councilman  Giorgio  Orsoni,  is  in  a close  race  with  the 
popular  Minister  of  Public  Administration  Renato  Brunetta 
(from  Silvio  Berlusconi's  Popolo  della  Liberta  party). 
Brunetta 1 s mayoral  run  could  be  hurt  by  his  stated  desire  to 
continue  serving  as  a cabinet  minister  even  if  elected,  but 
he  remains  a very  popular  figure  among  Venetians,  and  the 
race  is  definitely  open. 

1[8 . (SBU)  According  to  PD  officials  in  the  region,  the 
party, s main  problem  lies  in  its  inability  to  articulate  a 
platform  and  its  lack  of  organization,  not  in  the  quality  of 
its  governance.  A PD  official  from  Verona  highlighted  recent 
achievements  by  numerous  PD  mayors  throughout  the  Veneto,  but 
admitted  that  the  party  has  been  ineffective  in  communicating 
its  successes  to  the  electorate  and  translating  them  into 
votes.  The  party  has  also  struggled  to  explain  itself  to 
voters  in  the  region,  a communication  failure  that  has 
allowed  the  LN  to  take  the  mantle  of  ""reform""  from  the  PD. 
Additionally,  unlike  the  LN,  the  PD  has  not  built  a robust 
physical  presence,  further  removing  it  from  the  electorate 
and  particularly  the  next  generation  of  young  voters . 

Lastly,  despite  several  particularly  talented  Veneto  PD 
politicians,  the  party  has  not  successfully  drawn  the  link  to 
the  territory  that  the  LN  has  so  masterfully  done.  Regional 
PD  officials  stressed  that  tying  its  platform  more  closely  to 
the  specific  Veneto  terrain  is  critical  to  any  future  level 
of  success  in  the  region.  The  PD  failed  to  inherit  the 
structure  of  the  Italian  Communist  Party  or  the  Christian 
Democrats  - the  parties  from  which  it  descended  - and  after  a 
series  of  failures  on  the  national  and  regional  level,  has 
struggled  to  set  new  roots  down. 

Comment:  Jockeying  for  Power  within  the  Ruling  Coalition 

1I_9 . (C)  Because  the  center-right , s victory  in  the  regional 
race  is  essentially  assured,  the  real  contest  in  the  Veneto 
is  within  the  majority  coalition,  between  the  Northern  League 
and  Prime  Minister  Berlusconi, s ruling  Popolo  della  Libert 
(Pdl).  While  they  are  allies  in  the  coalition,  their 
relationship  at  the  regional  level  and  below  is  often  tense, 
and  the  two  parties  display  very  different  positions, 

MILAN  00000021  003  OF  003 

platforms,  and  political  styles.  While  the  LN  has  been  strong 
in  the  Veneto  for  some  time,  this  election  cycle  could  be  the 
first  time  that  it  actually  overtakes  the  Pdl  in  the  region; 
a recent  poll  conducted  by  northern  Italian  polling  firm  SWG 
predicts  the  LN  will  receive  33  percent  of  the  vote,  while 
the  Pdl  stands  around  27  percent.  While  polls  are  imperfect 
predictors,  the  numbers  are  still  striking  to  those  both 
within  and  outside  of  the  majority  coalition.  Because  the 
parties  in  the  winning  coalition  will  divvy  up  positions 
based  on  the  percentage  of  votes  they  have  received,  the  LN 
is  pushing  to  secure  as  many  important  regional  political 
posts  as  possible.  Additionally,  the  result  of  the  regional 
elections  in  the  Veneto  and  other  Italian  regions  could  shift 
the  balance  of  power  between  the  LN  and  Berlusconi, s Pdl  at 
the  national  government  level.  In  times  of  political 
weakness  or  vulnerability  Berlusconi  has  already  had  to  give 
concessions  to  LN  government  leaders  in  order  to  win  support 
for  his  personal  legislative  agenda.  With  a strong  enough 
showing  in  the  March  elections,  and  without  a solid 

opposition  to  block  such  measures,  the  LN  could  be  in  an  even 
more  powerful  position  to  influence  Italian  national  policy 
and  assert  its  own  security-based,  anti-immigrant  political 

11_10.  (U)  This  cable  has  been  cleared  by  Embassy  Rome.